April 13, 2018

Underwater, Japan discovers enough rare metal to supply the world for 400+ years

On the floor of the Pacific Ocean, Japanese scientists discovered a 965-square-mile mud patch containing 16m tons of rare-earth metals — enough to meet global demand “on a semi-infinite basis.” And we’re not talking gold doubloons here. This sunken treasure includes materials vital to smartphones and electric cars — and positions Japan to challenge China’s […]

On the floor of the Pacific Ocean, Japanese scientists discovered a 965-square-mile mud patch containing 16m tons of rare-earth metals — enough to meet global demand “on a semi-infinite basis.”

And we’re not talking gold doubloons here. This sunken treasure includes materials vital to smartphones and electric cars — and positions Japan to challenge China’s control over the rare-earth industry.

You can’t always borrow a cup of yttrium from your neighbor…

To bake up its primary exports (electronics and cars), Japan needs rare-earth metals. Lacking its own deposits, Japan has always had to go across the sea to borrow ingredients from China’s precious-metal pantry.

But in 2010, China drastically reduced its export quota for the 17 rare-earth metals — driving their price up 10x. Panicked by the price hike, Japan jumped into the ocean with a metal detector and a dream.

From magic mud to pricy product

Scanning their “exclusive economic zone” (an oceanic area of proprietary resource rights), Japan found mud that was chock full of yttrium, europium, terbium, and dysprosium — but couldn’t use it yet.

Turns out, pouring raw mud into the hood of a Tesla isn’t enough to make it run. Japan had to extract and synthesize the precious particles, and it didn’t take long for Japanese scientists to design a “hydrocyclone separator” to separate the good from the gritty.

A new chapter in the saga of mineral-mania

China, the only producer with reserves and the expensive industrial machinery to process them, has historically held the mineral market in a chokehold. Even after competition rose to meet demand, China’s market-share only slid from 93% to 86%.

Brazil, Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have had the reserves without processing power, while the US, Japan and Western Europe have had processing capacity without reserves — until now.

Japan’s huge reserve, backed by the modern-day alchemy to process it, will end China’s virtual mineral-monopoly. After the announcement, stock prices at Japan’s largest drilling company jumped 13%.

comments

Daily briefings, straight to your inbox

Business and tech news in 5 minutes or less

Join over 1 million people who read The Hustle

Bulb2

Trends Ideation bootcamp

Learn the science behind building massively successful companies

Course Starts In:

Days
Hours
Minutes
Seconds

Psst

How'd Bezos build a billion dollar empire?

In 1994, Jeff Bezos discovered a shocking stat: Internet usage grew 2,300% per year.

Data shows where markets are headed.

And that’s why we built Trends — to show you up-and-coming market opportunities about to explode. Interested?

Join us, it's free.

Look, you came to this site because you saw something cool. But here’s the deal. This site is actually a daily email that covers the important news in business, tech, and culture.

So, if you like what you’re reading, give the email a try.